SNOW HILL – Hundreds of acres of land near the Pocomoke River in Snow Hill will be rezoned following a decision by county officials this week.
In an effort to correct a mistake made during the county’s last comprehensive rezoning, the Worcester County Commissioners this week agreed to rezone two farms along the Pocomoke River. Though they’ve been used for crops, livestock and timber for generations, the farms’ agricultural zoning designations were switched to resource protection during the 2009 comprehensive rezoning.
“When your job is to redo the zoning maps, it’s a heck of a lot to look at,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “It’s almost impossible to check everything. I think there were mistakes made. This is how you find them.”
The Hope and Graham families, owners of the properties seeking the rezonings, said they were not aware their land was being rezoned in 2009. When they realized their farms had been designated resource protection, they hired an attorney to seek a rezoning.
While agriculture is allowed in all zoning districts, the structures associated with it — grain dryers, storage sheds, roadside stands, etc. — are not permitted in the resource protection district, according to Hugh Cropper, the attorney who represented the farm owners.
“All of those require agricultural zoning,” he said. “The purpose and intent of agricultural zoning is to protect farms.”
During Tuesday’s public hearings on the rezonings, Cropper told the commissioners both requests were being made based on mistakes in the assigned zoning district. He said both properties — the Hope family’s 129-acre farm and the Graham family’s 387-acre farm — had been zoned for agriculture previously and were being used for farming when they were reclassified with the resource protection designation in 2009. He pointed out the Graham property was a well-known farm with a rich local history. John Graham, who bought Cellar House Farm in the 1960s, said he had a strong interest in local history as a supporter of Furnace Town and the Delmarva Discovery Center. He said that while protecting the river was important, so was preserving historic properties. He added that his farm would be of interest to potential tourists traveling on Snow Hill’s riverboat.
“Cellar House I think will be quite an attraction when the Black-Eyed Susan finally appears and people come up and down the river,” he said.
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve both requests, which will return the farms—all but the section of wetlands on the properties—to agricultural zoning. That marks a change in the local outlook, according to Cropper.
“It’s a shift in philosophy from really overburdening environmental protectionism and regulation to protecting farmers and allowing farms to make money and stay in the family,” he said.
He believes Worcester is an agricultural county and it’s important for local officials to protect that. Others, however, say there are other ways the county should be working to protect its agriculture. Assateague Coastal Trust’s Kathy Phillips is troubled by the piece-meal zoning changes that occur in the years between comprehensive rezonings.
“If this county is going to truly sustain its viability, we must be planning for climate adaptation, protect our ag lands by encouraging new farming practices that are adaptable to the coming change, protect our forests and wetlands, be proactive in resiliency planning, and involve the people of Worcester County in how their communities will look in 20 years,” she said.
Though the property owners said they pursued a rezoning now because they weren’t aware their zoning was being changed in 2009, Phillips said that county and its local environmental groups did extensive community outreach. Jennifer Keener, the county’s deputy director of development review and permitting, agreed and said there were press releases, public meetings and informal work sessions.
“We try to reach out as best we can,” she said, but acknowledged that individual property owners were not notified during the process. “There are going to be individuals who don’t hear about it until later.”
According to Keener, countywide zoning changes typically occur after an update of the county’s comprehensive plan. She said the county was just now preparing to review its current comprehensive plan.